Blurbing A Book: What It Is, What It Means, And Other Questions

Blurbing A Book: What It Is, What It Means, And Other Questions

So, I started talking a bit about blurbs on books over yonder hills at Twitter, and it became clear that a lot of folks, even other writers new to this whole CHAOS CIRCUS, don’t even entirely understand them. Hell, maybe I don’t even understand them. It’s possible they’re some kind of Idea Virus, some Memetic Parasite and we authors have been passing them around from book to book? Whatever. Point is, I figure since I hit my morning word count already, and I’m trying not to DOOMSCROLL, I’d talk a bit about blurbs, in a sort of FAQ style.

Note that I am not guaranteed to know what I’m talking about, and nothing I say should be considered Writ Law on any such matter. Everything I say is as unfirm as pudding. Mm. Pudding.

Let’s begin.

What the hell is a blurb?

It’s a terrible word, for one. Like BLOG, BLURB just sounds fucking weird. BLEURB. BLOOORB. BLIRRRRB. Anyway, what it actually is, besides a strange word, is — well, you know how you look at a book and it’s got some comment on the cover from another author? Like —

“THIS MADE MY NIPPLES SING LIKE HAPPY CRICKETS, A TRUE TOUR DE FORCE” — Chnurk Mandog, Topeka Times Bestselling Author of 151 Ways To Eat Ghosts

Yeah, that’s a blurb. Sometimes you get a real fancy one on the front cover. Sometimes it’s not from other authors, but from pre-reviews like from NPR or Washington Post or some such. You might see others on the back cover, and then sometimes a bunch more inside the book.

Wait, I thought a blurb was the book’s description?

Uhhh yeah that’s also true. The thing we sometimes call flap copy, cover copy, back cover copy, or just the “book description,” people also call a book blurb. Because I guess fuck you, that’s why? Shrug.

How does one get a blurb?

You ask. Or someone asks on your behalf, which is ideal. An agent, editor or authors asks the author — sometimes via their agent or editor — to take a look at the book and provide a sassy, marketing-speaky line of text about a book.

How do you prefer to get blurbs?

Well, in a perfect world, I’m not involved. Ideally, an editor says, “Here’s a list of who we think could blurb this, do you have any names to add/subtract,” and then they’re the ones who send out the message, HEY, CHNURK MANDOG HAS A NEW BOOK IT’S FULL OF WORDS THAT DEMAND YOUR MARKETING-FRIENDLY SONG OF PRAISE. And then when I’m asked, it’s also ideal when the request comes through either from an editor/my agent or some combination thereof. Again, in that perfect publishing world, the authors are largely removed from the exchange. This isn’t always the reality, and of course that’s fine, too.

How much time do you get to read and provide the blurb?

Often, not enough time, if I’m being a little complainy. Ideally, many many months. In reality, sometimes a month or two. Once in a while, even less.

Is there compensation for a blurb? Is it paid?

No. Gods, no. That’d be some hinky business. I’m sure some authors have treated their blurbers to some kind of reward, by proxy — HERE IS CANDY, you might say, because authors are basically children and children like candy. But I have never given, nor received, candy or other compensation for blurbs. *wink wink just put the bag of money under the park bench marked with the Ancient Wendig Sigil and then the following Tuesday look in the hollow birch tree for the elf that will hand you the blurb ha ha just kidding that’s not a thing wink wink*

So, you do it for someone, and then they return a blurb to you one day?

Well, no. I mean, maybe yes for some? But my view is that blurbs should never be transactional — as in, it’s not tit-for-tat, not scratcha-my-back-scratcha-you-back, it’s just a thing you do because you like books and you value a strong bookish ecosystem. We like to share Book Love and if we can do so in a rewarding official capacity, great. That said, I have no doubt some authors view it in a transactional way, which would be a shame. I think the trick to this is not viewing it as if it’s a favor. Because favors are returnable. You do it because YAY BOOKS, YAY AUTHORS. Again, ideally.

What is the value of a blurb?

I have no idea. Meaning, I don’t know how much it moves the needle on sales. They’re nice to have. I like them. Maybe there’s something to it — certainly if I see a blurb from an author I like, it at least gets me to look at a book. But I can’t say how much it affects actual sales.

I’m told that there’s an inside baseball industry function — as in, an outlet might be more likely to review the book if they see a blurb by a Chosen Author, or maybe that helps goose bookstore orders. But again, if there’s a practical, numbers-based reality to this, I don’t know what it is.

Do you actually read the books you blurb?

Well! This is one of those tricky questions, isn’t it? I do. Though I have heard not all authors do. And I’ve also heard that not all authors even write their blurbs. I’ve heard tell of agents or editors writing the blurbs for them. Now, before we all clench up our sphincters, there’s some value to this, because authors are not marketing people, which means we don’t always know how to coalesce our thoughts into succinct sales pitches. But that would still mean the author has read the book, and if they haven’t and simply sub out the task to an agent or editor… well, that’s weird. It’s also suggestive of the transactional component discussed above.

To be clear, I’ve never had my agent or any agent or editor suggest doing this. My practice is, I compose a blurb and I like to make sure that editors and authors are happy with it, and I note they are free to massage it as they see fit, provided I approve the result before it goes in or on a book.

Also to be clear, and very honest, though I do read every book, sometimes I am forced to read them very quickly, which is to say, not as well or as thoroughly as I’d like — I’m a slow reader by nature and if you don’t give me as much time to read it as I want, I do my best to pace and race through. But I read them start to finish and blurb accordingly if I liked it.

Do you blurb every book you’re sent?

Gods, no. I’m a slow reader, and this Current Era of Aerosolized Horseshit has put a serious drag on my reading time. Further, not every book is for me, nor am I for every book.

What if you hate a book?

I don’t think I’ve ever actively hated a book I’ve been sent for blurbage purposes — but I’ve certainly had some where I felt, as noted, this book just isn’t for me, and it’s not clicking. If that’s the case, you just let the asker know what’s up. You can politely decline, or say, this just isn’t for me, and I like to think that’s okay. The reality is, though, most books I’m sent I don’t blurb, and the reason I don’t blurb then isn’t because of the content, but because of the lack of time to read them.

Real-talk, blurbing feels a little like homework. “Here is a book you have to read in three weeks, and I need your micro-review by then.” There’s a bit of pressure and unpleasantness to that, at least for me. Other writers may find their mileage varies. Just the same, I should also note it’s an honor, at the same time, to be asked. It can be both things, because sometimes that’s how life works. I always try, and I don’t always get there.

Are there ever hurt feelings over that?

Maybe? Not from me, to be clear. I expect fully that any who get my book won’t blurb it, and again, for reasons beyond me. It’s because it didn’t click, or they didn’t have time, or whatever. Life’s hard. Everybody’s busy. We have DOOMSCROLLING to do, dontchaknow. Again, I think it’s why it’s best to remove any sense of “transaction” out of it and why it’s best when the author isn’t part of the exchange — that dulls any potential pain. I like to hope too that editors and agents aren’t burned by it. But, I’m sure some people are definitely Peppermint Petty about things, and I can’t control that.

How many blurb requests do you get?

Me? It ranges from one to four a week, usually.

Are there expectations carried by an author’s endorsement on a book?

A good and complicated question. For my very first book, I had one of the blurbers respond back quite politely that they adored the book (the book in question being BLACKBIRDS), but because they didn’t write books like that, they weren’t going to blurb because they were afraid it would send the wrong message to their readers. And I bristled at that, at first, but then I kinda got it. If a hard sci-fi author blurbs a thriller, there’s a risk — though what size of risk, I don’t know — that readers will see that, pick up the book, and then be salty that the book in question had no science-fiction elements. I think certain authors who write across genres may have an easier time with this, but I dunno. Again, I don’t know how serious a problem that is, but I do understand that if I blurb a book, people seeing my name may not just intuit that I think it’s a book of quality but that the book is in some way like mine. Unfair? Probably. True just the same? Shrug.

Are you proud of any particular blurbs? 

Well, I mean, listen, I’m very excited anytime any other penmonkey is like, HEY THIS RILL GUD, because… that’s just nice. They do what I do, and it’s nice to have that feedback. You hope and assume it’s real. It’s especially cool when it’s someone you regard well. If I had a blurb from authors I grew up reading, like Robin Hobb, or Joe Lansdale, or Stephen King — I’d definitely print that shit out and hang it on the fridge. For eternity, or at least until the next fridge. I am particularly happy to have a blurb from Erin Morgenstern, who is a friend and though one might assume that means the blurb is in some way transactional or “who-you-know,” she somewhat famously doesn’t prefer to blurb books by friends, so the fact that she felt Wanderers was of special enough note to earn the blurb regardless felt extra special. But all the blurbs on that book thrill me, because people took the time to read this 80-million page book and… then say nice stuff about it. It’s always an honor.

Hell, that Rin Chupeco blurb for Wanderers is *chef’s kiss* good. Like, that blurb is ART. (See above)

(I also have a couple blurbs in for Book of Accidents that, to be honest, are already pretty thrilling.)

(But those aren’t announced yet shh.)

Do you blurb self-published books?

I’m not opposed to it, though I’m rarely asked, and generally speaking I’d prefer to know you first, and have some semblance of a relationship/online friendship with the author, because self-pub can roam all over the map in terms of quality. Mostly I dunno that blurbs on self-pub books are even that much of a thing?

Do you blurb books that aren’t yet sold to a publisher?

This is a semi-recent thing to pop up — I’m asked occasionally, and no, I do not. It sets up dangerous precedent, asking authors to blurb books that haven’t even been vetted and edited, and also only further entrenches a WHO-YOU-KNOW problem. Editors and agents should stop asking this. It is a waste of time for the authors asked, and also a problematic ask for the author asking, too — it runs the risk of them burning bridges just as they’re getting built.

What makes a good blurb?

I have no idea. I try to walk that line between ooh enticing and here is a specific thing about this book and here are generic cool things people respond to. Sometimes you do that thing where you compare it to other popular touchstone stories like, “It’s like One Tree Hill and Blade Runner had a book baby!” or, “Fans of Ernest Goes to Camp will love this!” There are also lots of repeated words — Unputdownable! Tour de force! Magnifitrillifocent! Okay I maybe made that last one up. It’s fun to say, though.

I mostly wish I could just put YEAH I LIKED THIS A LOT YOU SHOULD READ IT because that’s what I’m saying every time.

Does every book get blurbs?

At a certain level, authors stop getting blurbs. You ascend to a special place where no blurbs matter, because you already sell a Gorgillion copies. I think debuts are probably the most vital place you find them.

And I think that’s it, for now.

If you’ve more blurb-related questions, poop ’em in the comments below.

6 responses to “Blurbing A Book: What It Is, What It Means, And Other Questions”

  1. Hey, Chuck. Interesting the difference in which we use words…In the world of indie publishing, we usually refer to “blurb” as the book sales description – the description that you see on Amazon and other retail sites.

  2. I remember the “Log rolling in our time” items in (I think) Spy Magazine. Real examples of Author A blurbing Author B and, right beside that, Author B blurbing Author A.

  3. I tend to dislike blurbs that name check other authors (as some of the pictured ones do). I especially hate the ones that say that this author is “the next [other author]”. I have literally not bought some books because they were blurbed like that.

  4. Interesting you should write on this subject. I just picked up a book that had a raving blurb from my favourite author. The book isn’t all that good really. Don’t get me wrong, i’ll complete it, but i’m just not terribly impressed by the writing. So now i think less of the book, the author of the book and the quality of the blurbs of my favourite author.

  5. Thank you. I teared up when you said you were a slow reader. Twice, almost as if you were emphasizing it. A painful lump rose in my throat, as if watching someone who hates jumping hurl themselves out of the side of a gunship under fire.
    It feels funny to thank someone for admitting a vulnerability. But while people often call attention to their “flaws” by saying things like “Oh, I’m such a nerd, I love word problems and have a Mensa card!” or “If I have a flaw, it’s that I’m a workaholic!” they never mention how they are terrible at telling the truth, or being kind. They never admit things that anyone thinks is an actual problem, whether it is or just society perceives it to be.
    Nobody thinks of being a slow reader as complimentary. Surely, the faster you read and comprehend text, the smarter you are, right? At least that’s public school guidance counselor logic where I came up.
    It’s certainly not something I ever admit. Nobody wants to see the same combination of delight and surprise on the face of an acquaintance, friend, or prospective romantic partner as they saw on the face of their junior high school bully that one time they needed the teacher to give them just five more minutes. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get it, and I only passed the test because it was multiple choice.
    Because it wasn’t just the bully whose face lit up. It was nearly everyone else in the class. It was the crush. It was the best friend. Worst of all, it was the teacher, who had some justification now for suggesting I would have “less stress” by dropping down from an Honors class to a “General”.
    You’re a special kind of crazy, Mr. Wendig. But then, anyone who dares step into the fiery pits of Star Wars fandom brandishing a novel with a protagonist who identifies as a woman has to be.
    You don’t know the power it gave me to read that top review on Amazon whining about bait-and-switch because someone thought the MC was supposed to be Wedge and it turned out to be a bunch of diversity candidates…and then…wait for it….wait…for…it…smash the One-Click Buy button. I’m pretty sure Luke felt the disturbance in The Force, wherever he is.
    And while I have your attention, I really wish the Aftermath novels would get made as movies. They are literally the only Star Wars novels other than the movie novelizations and the Republic Commando series that I really loved and didn’t yawn my way through.
    Maybe, with the success of The Mandalorian show on Disney +, enough people remember why Luke, Leia, R2D2, C-3PO, Han, Chewie, Darth Vader and Boba Fett, were our heroes, even if they weren’t always on the winning side. Especially when they weren’t on the winning side.
    Maybe they’re ready now to meet Sinjir Rath Velus, former Imperial Torturer, his puppets-I mean family, and his boyfriend. Maybe they’re ready for “Princess Wedge”, who screams when he gets dropped down a hole in the floor, and falls in love with one of his rescuers. I’m not sure they’re ready for Jom Barrell, but you know. Baby steps.
    Gatekeepers don’t @me. You don’t want me to bring my receipts. No, seriously, I keep them with my crates of Golden Age of the Sith comics in the old R2D2 action figure case with my OG Kenner Leia, Vader, and Boba Fett. It’s really heavy and a pain in the ass and the catches keep coming loose, so please don’t make me. I’ll probably just hit you with a bootleg holiday special vhs and bad voice impressions of a seismic charge.

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